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  • gbuckler


Updated: Oct 28, 2021


When, on a summer’s evening in 1872, a constable on Hampstead Heath apprehended a 56 year old woman who happened to be carrying a few sprigs of fern, he could not possibly have foreseen the repercussions. In her account of the incident, the woman described how the constable bounded over to her brandishing a stick; he then grabbed her arm, causing an injury to one of her fingers, and told her that she should not be taking fern from the Heath. Only after she had given up the ferns did the constable release her.

Little did he know that the woman was none other than my feisty great great grandaunt, Eliza Meteyard – and she was not going to let the matter rest. A few weeks later the constable found himself before the magistrates who ruled that there had been ‘at least an excess of zeal’ on the part of the constable. He was fined 5s.

In Eliza’s judgment, this small fine and the conclusion that the constable’s actions amounted to no more than an ‘excess of zeal’, did not adequately address the severity of the assault. A letter was soon on its way to the editor of The Times newspaper – a letter that shows an eloquence and skill with words that might be expected from someone who had recently published a celebrated two-volume biography of the potter and abolitionist, Josiah Wedgwood. Eliza opens what was to become a lengthy letter with these words:

A question having been raised as to the kind and degree of use which may be made of the open spaces around London, I venture to appeal to you. In securing Hampstead Heath to the use of the public the Board of Works have effected an invaluable service; but, if while accepting the boon, the people must resign the chief of those privileges which render open spaces like it invaluable to dwellers in towns, to children, to artists, in fact to all who need culture or intellectual refreshment, they had been better left a prey to building speculators, and to that sordid utilitarian ugliness which prevails in modern domestic architecture.

Eliza goes on to describe, in great detail, her encounter with the over-zealous constable and to deride his defence that he had used force only because he believed Eliza to have been deliberately ignoring what he was saying. In fact, she had not heard one word as she suffered from deafness. She waxes lyrical on this:

I carry with me one of Reine’s acoustic instruments [a small ear trumpet] by the aid of which I hear well; but the man’s persistent and heavy grasp prevented my crossing my hand to grasp it ………………..

I have yet to learn if deafness is a crime or a disgrace; or if Beethoven or Sir Joshua Reynolds were worse men for their want of hearing than Milton and Prescott [1] for their want of sight. My impaired hearing arises in a great measure from incessant brainwork, so that if in my day I have done any small service to art, and for culture of the people, the good lives, the pain is simply mine, and I have the moral courage not to be ashamed of some few of those scars and wounds which we all, more or less, acquire in the great battle of life.

Eliza reminds readers of The Times that she had herself worked hard for the creation of parks, gardens and open spaces for the people, and she applauds the recent purchase of Hampstead Heath by the Metropolitan Board of Works for the use of the public. However, she deplored the maltreatment of ladies who gather ‘a few leaves of fern or grass for the adornment of their rooms’ while others cause disfigurement to the Heath by ‘dragging up and carrying off the finest roots and branches of gorse for firewood’. She appeals to the bureaucratic body now governing the Heath to ‘rule with gentleness’, and to the servants it employs to have the ‘common intelligence to judge between great and little’. Eliza concludes her letter:

Let the artist or botanist have his leaves, the child its handful of blossoms and wild flowers; beyond these small privileges let us one and all keep rigidly to the rules imposed. We ask but little – we are willing to give much, but there is a point beyond which bureaucracy must not ride us too heavily, or the good secured by the purchase of Hampstead-heath may weigh lightly beside the evils engendered.

I am, Sir, faithfully yours, ELIZA METEYARD

This letter, which runs to over 1,400 words, demonstrates why Douglas William Jerrold had bestowed on Eliza the sobriquet ‘Silverpen’ following her contribution of the leading article to the first issue of Douglas Jerrold’s Weekly Newspaper.

Eliza Meteyard was the daughter of my 3rd great grandparents, William and Mary Meteyard, and sister of Alfred Bernard Meteyard, my great great grandfather. Born in Liverpool in 1816, Eliza spent most of her early years in Shropshire where her father, an army surgeon, was based. However, when she was 13 years old, Eliza was sent to live with a relative of her mother’s in Thorpe near Norwich – a move most likely necessitated by the family’s increasing financial difficulties and by the severe attack of scarlet fever that Eliza had suffered around the same time.

In 1842, at the age of 26, Eliza left Norwich for London to pursue a literary career. She became a close friend of Mary Howitt who, with her husband William, was a central figure among London’s liberal intellectuals. She quickly identified with the radical unitarians, an active and visionary group who wanted to transform industrial society; and she developed a close association with the journalist and social campaigner, Douglas Jerrold,[2] becoming a regular contributor to his periodicals. Through these contacts Eliza was introduced to other liberal thinkers, among them Samuel Smiles, at that time a campaigner for parliamentary reform; and Eliza Cook, a poet, whose bi-weekly journal sought to promote political freedom for women and to address questions of class and social justice.

During the 1840s and 1850s, Eliza was a regular contributor to a number of cheap periodicals known as ‘journals of popular progress’. These were essentially literary publications which included poems, stories and articles advocating the intellectual and social progress of ‘the people’, supporting humanitarian and progressive causes, and encouraging the growing feminist movement.

Eliza soon became known as a dedicated campaigner for social reform. She was unwavering in the belief that progress towards the egalitarian, moral society she dreamed of would be achieved through people’s own efforts rather than by legislation; and that, for these efforts to be effective, there needed to be more opportunities for education and learning. An egalitarian society, she believed, would depend on equality of knowledge, something fundamental to the work of healing what was a fragmented, class-defined society. It is, therefore, not surprising that we find Eliza spearheading the crusade to introduce shorter working hours for shop workers and others, insisting that more leisure time would give people greater opportunity to improve themselves.

It was this belief in the power of education to transform the lives of individuals and society that led Eliza to join with others who were calling for the abolition of capital punishment; she maintained that it denied criminals any chance of reformation through education, and of the prospect of a new life that could make a useful contribution to society.

Eliza is also acknowledged to have been one of the founders of the radical feminist movement. She campaigned for women to be given the means to achieve financial independence; she called for the provision of vocational education for women; and she provoked considerable controversy when she appealed for existing attitudes to prostitutes and prostitution to change, proposing that the women should be treated as victims rather than criminals.

Finally, at least for the purposes of this narrative, Eliza became known for her attachment to the principle of co-operation and for her championing of the ideas of her lifelong friend, Samuel Smiles, who held that ‘the great power’ of co-operation was the foundation of all true progress. Eliza regarded co-operation as key to the creation of the utopian society of the future to which she looked forward.

Eliza’s views and ideals are all reflected in the numerous essays and articles she contributed to periodicals. They also informed the novels and children’s books she published. Although by no means failures, the novels did not achieve the same level of success as the articles. But it was the publication of her two-volume Life of Wedgwood in the mid-1860s that earned her the greatest critical acclaim.

Her magnum opus traced not only the life of the distinguished potter but also the history and development of ceramics. It was a fruit of Eliza’s interest in the development of the decorative arts and of her belief that art, good craftsmanship and beauty can have a humanising effect on the population.

Evidence of Eliza’s personal circumstances can be found in Mary Howitt’s autobiography [3] where she is described as ‘Poor dear Miss Meteyard’, ‘Poor dear Silverpen’, ‘Poor old Silverpen’; or, as in a letter to her daughter in 1850, ‘Poor dear soul!’:

Miss Eliza Meteyard (‘Silverpen’), too, is with us. She is now a sufficiently old friend of ours for us all to feel perfectly at ease with one another. She has her work as well as we. Poor dear soul! she is sitting beside me at this moment with her lips compressed, a look of abstraction in her clever but singular face, and her hair pushed back from her forehead, while she is busy over a story about a Bronze Inkstand, which she hopes to make a very fine one. A good creature is she! She has just published a most interesting juvenile book, called ‘The Doctor’s Little Daughter.’ It is her own early life. Out of the money thus obtained, she has provided for and sent out a young brother to Australia; while for another she is striving in another way. Indeed, she is both father and mother to her family; yet she is only seven-and-twenty,[4] and a fragile and delicate woman, who in ordinary circumstances would require brothers and friends to help her. How many instances one sees almost daily of the marvellous energy and high principle and self-sacrifice of woman! [5]

What was it about Eliza that evoked these expressions of tenderness from Mary Howitt? We know that Eliza was challenged by financial difficulties for most of her life. One commentator on Victorian women writers [6] claims that the principal reason for Eliza’s embarking on a writing career was to support herself and her dependants; and we learn from Mary Howitt that Eliza (‘who always behaves so nobly to her relatives’) took it upon herself to support her siblings after the death of her father. But the earnings from her contributions to periodicals would not have provided a decent income; and on five occasions she had to apply for financial help from the Royal Literary Fund, a charity formed to give assistance to writers facing financial difficulties. Her financial situation was not helped when, in 1850, a Church of England publisher was forced to decline her stories after an ‘influential person’ accused her of popery in one of her books, describing Eliza as a Jesuit in disguise! Mary Howitt’s comment on this incident reads: ‘It is the loss of £250 to poor Miss Meteyard, while I suppose that Mr Finch (the ‘influential person’), surrounded by creature comforts, would go to rest on Christmas Eve feeling that he had done God service.’

Even after the huge success of her Wedgwood biography, it seems that Eliza continued to face financial challenges, and in 1868 Prime Minister William Gladstone, to whom she had dedicated the biography, arranged for her to receive a Civil List Pension of £60 a year for ‘her services to literature’, an award that was increased in 1874 to £100. Finally, in 1877, the Dean of Westminster placed at her disposal a cottage in Lambeth where she would remain until her death two years later.

In addition to the ever-present financial worries, the severe attack of scarlet fever she suffered in her childhood had left Eliza’s health fragile and her hearing badly impaired.

Nevertheless, it is quite clear that Eliza did not allow herself to be limited by financial insecurity, poor health or deafness. As we have seen, she took a leading role in the growing feminist movement; she immersed herself in politics and became an effective advocate of social reform through education; and she was a pioneer journalist who employed fiction to respond to the social problems of her day. As if these were not enough to occupy her time and her energy, Eliza pursued her interest in the decorative arts throughout her life and became a passionate believer in the humanising effects of art and beauty. It was this that encouraged her to undertake the monumental project of producing the two-volume life of Wedgwood. The enthusiasm with which this work was greeted can be seen in reviews like these.

‘She has devoted her whole mind and energy to her subject, and has achieved a work not less creditable to herself than it is to all who wish to know anything about English ceramic art and its great inventor.’

‘… a work in every way worthy of the mechanical genius of Josiah Wedgwood and of the biographical skill of Eliza Meteyard.’

‘… this elaborate and magnificent work, which affords conspicuous evidence of the enterprise, the taste, the skill, and the perseverance of one and all concerned in its accomplishment.’

Eliza followed up the ‘Life’ with five more books on Wedgwood which included Wedgwood and His Works (1873), Memorials of Wedgwood (1874) and The Wedgwood Handbook: A Manual for Collectors (1875).

By the time of her death in April 1879, Eliza had left Hampstead Heath and its over-zealous constables far behind. She was living in the cottage in Lambeth provided by the Dean of Westminster, and working on a new edition of the ‘Life’.

I shall leave the final tribute to Mary Howitt. Writing to a friend two weeks after Eliza’s death, Mary told her that in one week she had lost three dear and faithful old friends. ‘The third was Miss Meteyard, poor old ‘Silverpen’, our faithful friend for thirty-five years; one who had sympathised with us so tenderly and lovingly in our great sorrow.’ [7]

[1] William Hickling Prescott, an eminent American historian who suffered severe visual impairment [2] Douglas Jerrold was also a successful actor and playwright [3] Mary Howitt, An Autobiography Vol. 2, Forgotten Books, London 2018. There are several references to Eliza in this volume. [4] In fact, in 1850 Eliza would have been thirty-four! [5] Mary Howitt, pages 61-62 [6] Joanne Shattock in ‘Becoming a Professional Writer, Chapter 2 of The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Women’s Writing, ed Linda H Peterson, 2015 Cambridge University Press [7] Mary Howitt, page 295. The ‘great sorrow’ that Mary refers to was probably the death of her ten year old son, Claude, in 1844.

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